Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America

Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America

Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America

Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America


"An excellent book by a noted scholar... Will become a standard reference for scholars and students... and will appeal to a huge public audience". -- Jerald T. Milanich, Florida Museum of Natural History

Elizabeth P. Benson provides an introductory overview of the depiction of animals in the pre-Columbian art of Latin America. Drawing on an extensive set of images (many of them previously unpublished) from the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the Florida Museum of Natural History, she examines the practical, ritual, and mythic importance of animals in pre-Columbian life and thought as well as the meanings that animals still have for the modem descendants of those indigenous peoples.

Conveniently arranged by animal groups and beautifully illustrated, Benson's survey encompasses all artistic media and spans the pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Her approach organizes a lifetime of scholarship and a wealth of source material into an engaging collection of pre-Columbian images. Her cross-cultural comparison examines animal symbolism in terms of natural history, archaeology, early Spanish accounts, and recent folklore.

Benson's work also highlights common themes in the relationship of human beings and animals across several centuries and cultures and so offers insight into these societies and their perceptions of the world around them. Providing information on animals and the beliefs surrounding them, the cultural contexts of their depiction, and the cultures to which they were important, Birds and Beasts of Ancient LatinAmerica will appeal to archaeologists, cultural historians, and anthropologists; to anyone interested in pre-Columbian art and mythology; and to modern-day bird and animal lovers.


Pre-Columbian people did not separate themselves from animals in quite the way we do today. They believed that animals have spirits and power, much the same as human beings. They feared nocturnal animals that shared a connection with the darkness of the underworld. Jaguars were especially powerful, for they were nocturnal hunters known to attack humans. More often, however, man was predator and the animals prey.

Animal remains from archaeological sites indicate that wild and domesticated animals were a significant source of protein in the diet. Hunting was a ritual event as well as a way to provide food. Deer and foxes were the most important large game animals. Other food animals included wild birds and domesticated animals, most notably dogs and partially domesticated animals such as guinea pigs--a favorite food in Pre- Columbian Peru. Turkeys were domesticated in Central Mexico and llamas in the Andes of South America. Llamas served as pack animals carrying light burdens, but they were never used as draft animals. Indeed, there was no need to develop wheeled vehicles because there were no animals to pull such conveyances. Llamas and wild birds sometimes substituted for humans as blood sacrifices, the blood of the animals apparently being an apt counterpart for human blood.

Animal gods shared the stage with gods of human form in Pre- Columbian cosmology. Most often the deified creatures represented animals from the local environment, but some exotic animals also appear as Pre-Columbian gods. Animal gods did not always inhabit their natural environment; hence we see feathered serpents in the sky and birds in the . . .

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